ANYONE suggesting the FA Cup has lost its allure should listen to Neil Harris for a while.
“You want to be successful in the FA Cup because your dream as a kid playing in the garden, or in the lounge with a soft ball, was to be in a team playing in the final scoring the winning goal,” Harris says.
“I was fortunate enough to realise that dream as a player and play in a cup final. The only disappointment was it wasn’t at Wembley.”
If Millwall defeat Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, Harris will get to lead his team out as a manager at Wembley in the semi-finals.
It’s a long shot – 18/1 at last check, to be exact – but then that’s also part of it, the chance to defy such steep odds. “If we were playing 38 league games against Tottenham it would be difficult for us,” Harris adds. “But the FA Cup is a real leveller because of expectation in a one-off tie.
“We hope we play as well as we have done against the three Premier League teams previously. We certainly hope that Tottenham aren’t as good as they can be at times.
“First and foremost for us representing our club is to be a good Millwall team. By that I mean you have to be spirited, you have to play our style of play. You have to have that togetherness in the dressing room, and we’ve certainly got that at the moment.”
Spurs have been very good recently, winning nine consecutive Premier League games at home. Out of the Europa League, they are also likely to play something close to their full-strength team.
That’s something AFC Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester City chose not to do and they lost. They were criticised for it, and Harris was asked after each of those games if he felt those managers had disrespected the FA Cup, with the implication that by extension they didn’t show his team enough respect.
But he isn’t having that.
“It’s very detrimental when anyone says, ‘they’ve changed their team to play Millwall’,” he insists. “They’ve only changed it to play Premier League players, and I always remind my players of that.
“The team you’re going to be facing are going to be super talented and afterwards it’s, ‘well done, you’ve just beaten Premier League opposition’.
“I’m proud of my players for what they have achieved so far. But by no means are we finished in this competition just because we’re going to Spurs on Sunday.”
Harris’ defence of the competition is also a defence of his players, from a feeling of not wanting their achievements so far to be downplayed.
As with many things around the club, perceptions are important. It would be unfair to think that their 1-0 win over Leicester City in the last round should be historically asterisked. Not when the actual details of it are what make up so much of the appeal of the competition: Down to 10 men, against the Premier League champions, somehow conjuring up a last-minute winner in front of their biggest crowd in 16 years.
Millwall are unbeaten in 17 games but this is whole new territory, one in which survival without shipping a heavy defeat might be marked as success. Harris isn’t one to duck that reality.
“We know to make it 18 we’ve got the sternest test possible in front of us,” Harris admits. “We’re confident but we’re not arrogant in what we do, individually or collectively. We’re brave enough as a group to be honest about the task that faces us.
“My players have been outstanding, they’re a great bunch of lads on and off the field. There’s a real belief in what we do and how we play. We’re certainly an honest bunch that know our limitations and know what we’re capable of. That’s certainly held us in good stead for the last three months.
“They enjoy each other’s company. If there are extra training sessions or an extra day in, there is no issue. I’m honest enough to say that comes off the back of a winning run, of course it does. But because they’re such a good group they just want to get better every time.
“They embrace every game. Spurs is a great game to play in, a great test. We’re looking forward to it. We’ve been on a terrific run. We’re in a good place.”
The Lions will be in a different place for the first time in this season’s competition, after five games and five wins at The Den.
“We’d love to have played Spurs here in our environment, because it takes them out of their comfort zone,” Harris concedes. “Going to them, they’re on their pitch, in their surroundings. You have home and away ties because it gives you an advantage, there’s no doubt.
“For us as a group playing away from home in my time in charge has never been an issue. In a way it forces the opposition to take control of the fixture. There are 28,000 fans coming to the game expecting a victory. In some ways that suits us to be the underdog.”
They have been the underdogs for the last three rounds, and were only marginal favourites before their tense 1-0 win over Southend in November.
After Braintree were dispatched each successive game was, in their words, a bonus. Harris and his assistant Dave Livermore know what it’s like to get all the way to the final as a second-tier side, to that 3-0 defeat to Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium in 2004.
Harris puts the current run above that. He also puts the competition on a pedestal he thinks it deserves and his team-talk before he sends his players out at White Hart Lane on Sunday will reflect that.
“What this team has achieved, even beating Southend in a local derby in the first round, has been way more of an achievement than my side getting to the quarter-finals that year,” Harris says.
“The memories and experience Dave Livermore and I took from that run we’ve fed into the players this year. We can certainly use that. We’re the underdog for a reason, but it’s the FA Cup.
“It’s a brilliant competition, absolutely brilliant. Barring the World Cup it’s the best cup competition in the world. It gives inspiration to millions of people around the world.
“This competition gives me the inspiration where I can stand in front of my players at five to two on Sunday dreaming that we can make a semi-final.”
Image: Millwall FC